Since the ousting of Serbia’s former President and war criminal Slobodan Milošević in 2000, Serbia has made strides toward a parliamentary democracy with competitive multiparty elections, even becoming a viable candidate for EU membership. Today, the country’s transition to democracy is uncertain. Freedom House has ranked Serbia “partly free” due to the ruling Serbia Progressive Party’s erosion of political rights and liberties, media censorship, and attacks on political opposition and civil society.
Serbs have been protesting in the capital of Belgrade every weekend for more than four months against the rule of President Vučić and for greater press freedom and free and fair elections. The protests grew significantly in December after leader of the opposition Serbian Left Party Borko Stefanović was violently attacked. Opposition coalition Alliance for Serbia called the attack “the result of Vučić’s ongoing smear campaign against his political enemies.”
At least 7,500 protestors marched through Belgrade on Saturday, April 13, but it’s unclear whether the protests can affect the political situation in Serbia. Several factors will determine whether opposition groups can force Vučić to make concessions to increase political freedoms or if the country will continue its downward trend.
In order for Vučić to stay in power – which appears to be his aim – he must maintain the support of some portion of Serbia’s elite, opposition, and the public. According to independent media source Balkan Insight, Serbia is becoming an increasingly “stratified” society in which economic and social benefits disproportionately flow toward an elite class with outsized political influence. Vučić has been known to offer investments, jobs, and other handouts to ensure political stability. According to the Business Anti-Corruption Portal, bribery in Serbia exceeds the regional average, with government procurement, natural resource extraction, and the judiciary especially prone to fraud and embezzlement.
In recent years, senior government officials have stayed quiet as Vučić has accumulated executive powers beyond his constitutional role. Going forward, elites’ support will depend on whether the benefits of supporting Vučić continue to outweigh the costs of defection. For example, if Vučić can ensure that government contracts are awarded to his inner circle, this might be enough to maintain their support.
Second, Vučić’s approach toward the opposition will affect the stability of his regime. So far, his strategy has been to vilify the opposition and delegitimize protestors. In response to weekly protests, Vučić has dismissed the protestors, calling them “fascists, hooligans and thieves.” While this tactic may work well in the short-term by denying the opposition an opening to gain momentum, it could ultimately backfire. By verbally attacking opposition leaders such as Stefanović, Vučić creates a hostile political climate that increases support for the opposition.
Third, Vučić must maintain the support of some portion of the Serbian public. In an effort to reclaim his legitimacy, Vučić is eyeing a snap election before the scheduled national election in April 2020. On March 25 Vučić told reporters that the country was “closer to early elections than before.” If the ruling Serbian Progressive Party wins a snap election – likely with some degree of election fraud – it could reinforce the party’s dominant role and prolong the president’s survival. Elections could also allow Vučić to gain information about the opposition’s strength (thus helping him course correct), reinforce elite loyalty, or divide and rule opposition groups. It is unlikely that opposition coalition Alliance for Serbia could win a significant majority due to media restrictions that prevent them from campaigning, pressure on voters, misuse of public resources, poll rigging, and other electoral irregularities.
The opposition’s tactics will also influence their potential success and Serbia’s political trajectory.
Thus far, protestors have used peaceful tactics to push for government concessions, but tensions between the opposition and state police are growing. On Saturday, March 16 the protests escalated when demonstrators broke into the building of the state-run Radio Television Serbia. Protestors also drove a truck across police lines and close to the president’s residence, leading riot police to use pepper spray. If the protests becoming violent, this could hurt the opposition movement by decreasing legitimacy and reducing broad-based participation in the resistance. International actors including EU officials might also intervene to support the Serbian government if violent conflict becomes likely.
Second, protestors need a leader and a viable political alternative to the Serbia Progressive Party. In the last elections, only one opposition candidate, Sasa Janaković won more votes than a spoof candidate, and no figure has emerged since that could seriously rival Vučić. While head of the Serbian Left Party Borko Stefanović has gained recognition since being attacked, he is unpopular with some groups due to his role in the 2008 sale of Serbia’s state petroleum company to Russia’s Gazprom. The opposition also needs to offer clearly defined pathways out of the current situation. So far, protestors have articulated several concrete demands, including the resignation of the interior minister and the health minister, but they lack a plan to fulfill these demands.
Third, the opposition needs unity. Although protestors and coalition group Alliance for Serbia both oppose Vučić and have many of the same aims, they are not officially connected. Rather, the anti-Vučić movement ranges from Marxist students to ultranationalists, which have vastly different political perspectives and aims. Until Alliance for Serbia (or some other political grouping) can earn protestors’ support, the movement will remain too disjointed to seriously threaten Vučić.
Recently, Vučić said he would not bow to opposition demands “even if there were five million people in the street.” Along with media censorship and rigged elections, statements like these suggest that Serbia is veering towards a hybrid regime with a personalist leader. Although protests in Serbia are growing and gaining international recognition, they are a long way from catalyzing political change or significant institutional reform.